SEOUL — I arrived in the snazzy nightlife district of Itaewon with a light-hearted reporting assignment: to capture the excitement of Halloween in the Korean capital. I didn’t expect to witness one of South Korea’s worst tragedies in modern history.
I headed down to the neighborhood with our photographer, Baek Yun-beom, at around 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, looking to cover an event that was special to many Koreans and novel for some.
Halloween was not a popular tradition in the country until recent years, when more and more young Koreans embraced the occasion to go clubbing and carousing in all kinds of crazy costumes.
We interviewed people about the joys of not having to wear a mask on a night out for the first time in years—South Korea lifted its outdoor mask mandate only a month ago—and not having to worry about what the public might say. Last year, some were criticized for partying during the pandemic. That night was also about celebrating their freedom.
But an unsettling feeling swelled up in us three hours later, when we saw rescue workers nervously pacing near a sloped alleyway. The narrow street was brimming with people, and it seemed no one could leave or enter.
It would later turn into a crowd crush that killed at least 155 people that night. Among them, 26 were foreigners, according to the South Korean government. At least two-thirds of those who died were in their 20s.
We went to different parts of Itaewon that Saturday night. We were confused by what we saw: blood and people lying in the streets, rescue workers and firefighters in trucks appealing to people to clear the road in order to pass.
We weren’t alone in feeling disoriented. I asked a 20-year-old man named Park Seung-jun, who told me the alleyway was already jammed at 6 p.m. “We saw rescuers carrying people on a stretcher around 10:30 p.m. after dinner, but we thought it would end soon. But it wasn’t over,” he said.
The horror of the night finally hit us at around 11:30 p.m., when we returned to a street just across the alleyway. There was talk about dozens of people who had cardiac arrest.
Then we saw many bodies on the ground, lying motionless, and ordinary citizens desperately performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), trying to save lives. It was surreal, and devastating, for me to process what I witnessed the first time of my life. I remember asking myself at that moment: “Am I in hell?”
The scene only became more morbid. In front of me, people were dying, or were already dead, but surrounding them were others still partying in costumes—dressing up as the Grim Reaper, literally death personified—to loud music.
It seemed people were either too curious—many tried to film the scene—or apathetic. I wondered if they were unaware of what was happening, or were just trying to get past the tragedy unfolding before them. “Put down your phones,” the police yelled at onlookers.
Baek approached the crowd surge’s ground zero to document it. He described a sight that will haunt me for a long time: A man, wearing blue jeans, was performing CPR on someone already covered in a cloth presumably by rescuers, “frantically, as if he was possessed.”
Another 20 or 30 bodies were also covered and placed in a row, likely because they were already pronounced dead, he said.
At around 1:30 a.m. the next day, I headed to Soonchunhyang University Hospital, about half a mile away from Itaewon. Dozens of ambulances flashed their red lights non-stop. It was another hell, for the living.
“Why won’t they let me in? They won’t let me anywhere. Where am I supposed to go?” a middle-aged woman said in tears as she looked for the hospital’s emergency room. It was taking too long to identify the victims, she said to herself.
Another man in a similar age sat on the ground, weeping bitterly.
The South Korean government declared a period of national mourning until November 5. It’s this devastation sinking in now, losing our young, that we have to deal with.
Follow Junhyup Kwon on Twitter.